A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

December 14, 2009

I picked this book up because it made the New York Times list of “The Ten Best Books of 2009“. Ordinarily, that would hardly be enough to move me, but I am hoping to read the sixteen contenders for The Rooster. Last year, being on the NYT list of ten was almost a guaranteed ticket into the tournament. The seeds are not announced until January, so I was playing the odds, hoping this book would make it into the always entertaining Tournament of Books.

As the title suggests, this is a book steeped in feminism. For that reason, I am probably the wrong person to review this book. I am sympathetic to the aims of feminism as a synonym for equality among/between the sexes, but I am not well-versed in feminist literature, theory, or history. I assume there are references and inside jokes and other delights that, through my ignorance, I completely missed. I cannot tell you about or even hint at any such hidden delicacies. What I can do is tell you my own reaction to the book as literature.

The book opens with a genealogical diagram of the women descended from Dorothy Trevor Townsend (1880-1914). This is somewhat helpful because a number of her descendants are also named Dorothy. Don’t worry, this is not a retelling of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or, maybe it is.

The overriding theme in the book, aside from feminism, is solitude. Not unlike the Jose/Arcadio/Buendias in One Hundred Years, each of the Dorothys (and Caroline and Elizabeth and Evelyn) is isolated in some way from the larger world. They do not share the same small isolated town as did the Jose/Arcadio/Buendias, but they share the fact of XX chromosomes and the consequences that go with that. The consequences change over time, of course, but womanhood has consequences.

The narrative hook is Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a scholar and then a women’s suffragette who starved herself to death in England in 1914. Her inspiration was Florence Nightingale, a woman who reappears throughout the work as a role model for the Dorothys. She leaves behind a thirteen year old daughter, Evelyn, and a crippled, ten year old son, Thomas. This book recounts the legacy of Dorothy Trevor Townsend.

Evelyn and Thomas are split up, with Thomas sent to America and Evelyn to her grandmother’s. Grandmother sends Evelyn to Madame Lane’s, “an educational establishment out of harm’s way”. The Great War is raging, after all. There, Evelyn nurses and feeds battered and broken soldiers before finding her own way to America via a scholarship. Evelyn becomes a chemistry professor of minor distinction. She has no children.

Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s legacy continues through Thomas Francis Townsend, father to one daughter: Dorothy Townsend Barrett. Dorothy Townsend Barrett, like her mother and namesake, is an activist. Her impetus is the death of her son, James, in 2001. She is intent on doing something, making a difference, but pursues this rather vague goal in a way that is as self-destructive as her grandmother’s starvation. Specifically, she trespasses on government property to take pictures of military coffins, which ends in a confrontation with military police.

These events are told in short snippets disbursed non-chronologically through the first three-quarters of the book. The following generation, the children of Dorothy Townsend Barrett, next take center stage. Caroline, the eldest after James, is embarrassed by her mother’s antics. She is a conformist, a rule-follower. Her mother’s later turn to blogging is as disconcerting to Caroline as her mother’s anti-war activism. Her discomfort is likely only to grow with her own daughter, Dorothy Louise Barrett-Deel, a self-described “Revolutionary”.

Elizabeth is less concerned with either attempt by Dorothy Townsend Barrett to escape the solitude of her womanhood. Elizabeth is an artist, a wife, a mother, and lonely. A nanny raises her twins, perhaps starting a new cycle of abandonment, while Elizabeth barely manages the social schedule of her oldest Suzanne in between her art and other responsibilities. Elizabeth’s struggles lend themselves to those small domestic humors parents love to share:

It’s a playdate; Suzanne duly apprised of the plan this morning as she and Liz waited for the school bus on Lafayette. Around them, Cooper Union students bunched up like black flies, bluebottles in window corners, at every “Don’t Walk.”

“Who?” Suzanne says.

“Matilda. She’s in your class. You know. She wears striped shirts.”

“Does she have a cat?” Suzanne asks.

“I have no idea.”

“Does she want to play My Little Ponies?”

Liz looks down at her daughter. “Who doesn’t?” she says.

Suzanne shoves her hands in her pockets and swings one leg. She leans against a filthy meter tattooed with stickers advertising things: 800 numbers for important advice; someone staying positive with HIV.

“I’ll go,” Suzanne says, as if going were a question.

“Great!” says Liz. “Here comes the bus!”

The overall effect is of snapshots of the problems that confront women at different points in time. Dorothy Trevor Townsend starves for the vote, effectively choosing between self-expression and her children. Evelyn chooses her own form of expression at the expense of having children at all. Each of the others are also trapped, in some way, between the life to which they aspire and their children. Dorothy Townsend Barrett must bear the isolating grief of losing a child, while her daughters are caught between careers and families.

The book is quite short and, therefore, cannot capture the full experience of being a woman in any of the times covered, much less all of them. My own view is that the novel is not entirely a success. The relationships between mothers and daughters is explored with more psychological force, and more literary flair, in Ghost Dance for instance. Both Brooklyn and Love and Summer more fully captured the difficult choices forced on women in earlier times. (Yes, these latter were written by men, but that makes it all the more striking that the subjective experience of the female leads is so much more emotionally compelling in those works than in this one.)

The book was enjoyable, but it is not a book I would press on anyone. There are interesting parallels with some great works (i.e. One Hundred Years of Solitude), but I doubt this is a book I will revisit. The book is well-written, but is neither particularly startling nor particularly engaging. The New York Times and I are not getting along.